Two Israels

"The March 17 national election may be the most important one in the state’s history and a choice not just between politicians, but between two Israels."

An Israeli flag is seen in the background as a man casts his ballot for the parliamentary election (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli flag is seen in the background as a man casts his ballot for the parliamentary election
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The saying in these upcoming elections is that it is between “Bibi and Buji” – Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog. Common thought is also that these elections are simply a waste of time and money brought upon us by selfish politicians. In reality, though, the March 17 national election may be the most important one in the state’s history and a choice not just between politicians, but between two Israels: Which Israel do we want to be? One Israel is represented by the political Right and the current government. It is an Israel greater in size due to the view of the Right that the West Bank is part of the Promised Land. It sees in the ruling of the Palestinians not an occupation, but rather a historic redemption. The Right therefore does not recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinians’ national movement and believes that we have a superior right to all the land and superior rights all together.
The consequence of this messianic-superiority syndrome is the settlements. They are the operational expression of a policy designed to secure a greater Israel and prevent the rights of the Palestinians to statehood.
The settlements, certainly in their more extreme right-wing expression of the hilltop youth, have become an active manifestation of a racist Israel with “price-tag” violence against Arabs, delegitimization of Israeli Arabs and Israeli leftists. They resemble the quasi-Fascist movements of Western Europe, as author Amos Oz pointed out in a recent TV interview on Channel 2. Even worse, they have the legitimacy of the most important powers in the government.
The biblical view of Israel is paralleled by a historical narrative according to which the hostility and danger to the Jewish people is universal and eternal; as we say in the Passover Haggadah: “In every generation they rise up to destroy us and God saves us.” According to the Right, “they,” in the past, stands for all enemies of the Jewish people, from the Romans to the Nazis; in the present “they” stands for anyone who is not only hostile to us, such as Iran, but also those who want a return for their recognition of us, or those who simply disagree with us – from Mahmoud Abbas to Barack Obama. This view is ingrained in a paranoid and xenophobic view of the world, a simplistic distinction between good Jews and the goyim.
Such an Israel, by consequence of this philosophy, will be in conflict with its neighbors and in tense relationships, at best, with the rest of the world – violent conflict with the Palestinians and a historic low point in the relations with the United States. What the champions of this mindset, led by Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, sell to the Israeli people is that on one side there are those who are out to destroy us, followed by those who are passive onlookers or simply anti-Semites, and us, who have force, an omnipotent force to defend Israel against all of that, real or imagined. A simplistic worldview marketed as a security doctrine.
This is a recipe for the self-destruction of our international relationships, leading us to the glorification of isolation as “the people who shall dwell alone,” living eternally by our sword. In the view of the current prime minister, this is realpolitik.
In this worldview, built on constant fear, Zionism reverts back to the days of the ghetto and turns Israel into an institutional ghetto. Zionism, under Israel, was supposed to heal the Jewish predicament, physically and psychologically – to get out of the ghetto and to get the ghetto out of us. Today’s prevalent right-wing worldview engraves the ghetto deeply into people’s mind, exploiting the post-traumatic fears of the nation.
The Right expresses the same messianic hubris on the domestic front. Defining themselves as the national camp, they pretend to represent the flag, the nation, the historical legacy – whoever opposes the Right is branded as a traitor. This is putting Israel’s democracy in extreme danger.
This is expressed by an onslaught against the High Court of Justice by right-wing legislators and a series of legislation to attempt to express the Jewishness of Israel at the expense of its democracy. This is paralleled by socioeconomic and normative treatment of Israeli Arabs as second class citizens.
Also on the economic front, the Right pursues elitist policies with encouragement for most business monopoles and little empathy for the have-nots. It is a crude Thatcheristic capitalism that, at least in macro-economic terms, has had some important successes. Here, too, it is nation before individual.
To the credit of the Right, one must say that its political leadership excels in marketing its doctrine and spreading its gospel. An “us against them” view from a position of so-called strength unlike the weakening of a conceding Left; classic right-wing propaganda campaign that attracts many Israelis.
THE OTHER ISRAEL is represented by the Left (today in coordination with the anti-Netanyahu center). The left – Labor – established Israel under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion. It always perceived itself strong in action, rather than rhetoric.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin were the flamboyant orators. The activism of the Labor movement was based on both Jewish and universal values, as expressed in our Declaration of Independence. With Begin coming to power in 1977, Labor sank into a deep inferiority complex as to its patriotic image. It allowed the Right a monopoly over “the blue and white” and a parallelism between maximalist territorial positions and patriotism.
Today the Left still suffers from this inferiority complex, but has not given up its fundamental values. Its basic mandate is the Declaration of Independence: a democratic Jewish homeland with equality for all and reaching out to peace with our neighbors and to the international community.
The Israel that the Left represents is more modest, sometimes even hesitant, yet with real respect for the rights of all individuals, including minorities. Real democracy, to the Left, is the oxygen of the nation, with a separation of powers and a fully independent High Court preserving the rights of the individual and of minorities.
This is also reflected in the socioeconomic policies of the Left, advocating for a welfare state with a free market, greater regulation and empathy in favor of the have-nots. Herzog was a very effective minister of welfare.
Given the history of its immigration policies, Labor has lost the support of Israel’s periphery, both in the South and in the North. The Israeli working class does not necessarily vote Labor. Yet, given Labor’s relations with the trade unions and its support for minorities, its policies will be more socially empathetic. By spending less on settlements, the Left will create a new national order of priorities – with education, housing and health at the center.
The flagship of the Left is a peace agreement with the Palestinians. It espouses a realistic two-state solution, along the lines of internationally accepted plans such as the Clinton Parameters and the Geneva Initiative. The Left has a chance to reach progress on this all-important issue, as it treats, by consequence of its values, the Palestinians as equals. It does not believe that we have a superior right to all of the land, and thus thinks that it must be shared, based on the 1967 lines with a compromise on Jerusalem as one city and two capitals.
The Left, as it does not fear such an outcome, knows the way to this destination.
It will not establish obstacles on this path in the form of settlement expansion. The path includes coordination with the pragmatic Sunni Arab coalition of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and sees in the Arab Initiative of 2002 a basis for negotiations.
It believes in dramatically important peace dividends, emanating from progress on the two-state solution in the form of better security, political and economic relations with most Arab countries.
The other important station on the way to a peaceful settlement is the international community. A government led by the Left, or Center-Left, would renew the days of the honeymoon between Washington and Jerusalem. Intimate and credible coordination with the Obama administration would make a peace policy more effective and deliver to Israel important security and economic dividends from our No. 1 ally. Relations with the European Union would improve in a significant way. Israel could aspire to receive the most preferential status of a non-EU country, similar to Turkey. This would have tremendous advantages for our scientific and technological development capacities. In short, Israel would regain a respected place in the family of nations and reap the fruits of globalization.
From a cultural and moral point of view, the Israel of the Left is more cosmopolitan, part of the Western world and yet uniquely Israeli. Naturally it is not less patriotic than the Right, yet it sees in the fulfillment of its patriotism, first and foremost the respect of the rights of the individual. The values of life, freedom, equality and civil rights are part of the national ethos and not subservient to it. The Left treats our Arab minority and neighbors with full equality, without this diminishing its Zionistic zeal.
An Israel of the Left (or Center-Left) would be smaller in size (without most of the West Bank), yet more empathetic of individual rights and diversity. While a peace process will not eliminate terror in the short run, it would give the country hope of putting an end to the vicious, bloody cycle, even if gradually. Israelis will then benefit from the dividends that come with better international relations, including greater investment, trade and tourism and being part of the opportunities and liberties of the Western-led globalized world.
The dichotomy in these elections is sharp and clear: an Israel of strong defensiveness pitted against the region and the world, or an Israel for the people, for peace and part of the family of nations.
March 17 should mark a clear decision.
A compromise of a national unity government is possible, as long as it is not hijacked by the messianic Right of Naftali Bennett for the good of the settlers. In any case, he must not be part of the next government. This is a historic election for Israelis to decide which of the two Israels they want.
Uri Savir is co-founder of the Peres Center for Peace and founder of the YaLa Young Leaders Peace Movement.
Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.